Towards Scalaz (Part 1)

by Adelbert Chang on Oct 13, 2013


A lot of people see Scalaz as a hard fringe, ivory tower, not suited for real-world applications library, which is unfortunate. The goal of this blog post series is to introduce various components of Scalaz, and hopefully through this allow folks to gain an understanding towards the power of Scalaz.

As a prerequisite, I assume knowledge of type classes as they are implemented and used in Scala.

Part 1: Learning to Add

Our motivation for the inaugural post of the series will be summing a List of something. Lets start out with Int, which is simple enough.

def sum(l: List[Int]): Int = l.reduce(_ + _)

And this works (kind of, it fails on empty Lists but we’ll get to that). But what if we want to sum a List[Double]?

def sumDoubles(l: List[Double]): Double = l.reduce(_ + _)

The code is the same, modulo the type parameter. In fact, the code would be the same whether it is Int, Double, or BigInt. Being the good programmers that we are, let’s make this generic in that respect with the help of scala.math.Numeric.

def sumNumeric[A](l: List[A])(implicit A: Numeric[A]): A =


Awesome. We can now sum List[Int], List[Double], List[BigInt], and many more.

But let’s give this a bit more thought - what if we wanted to “sum” a List[String] - that is, we concatenate all the Strings together to create one large String ?

def sumStrings(l: List[String]): String = l.reduce(_ + _)

This looks exactly like summing Int and Doubles! This however does not work with our sumNumeric - there is no (sane) way to define a Numeric[String].

Another way to look at this is that we only use the plus method on Numeric, never any of the other methods that also make sense for numeric types. So while our function works for summing a List of numeric types, it does not work for anything else that is not numeric but can still be “added” (String and string concatenation, List[A] and List#++).

Making it generic

So what do we want? We want a type class that only requires instances to be able to “add” two As to get another A.

trait Addable[A] {
  def plus(x: A, y: A): A

And let’s define an instance of Addable for all Numeric types and String.

object Addable {
  implicit def numericIsAddable[A](implicit A: Numeric[A]): Addable[A] =
    new Addable[A] {
      def plus(x: A, y: A): A =, y)

  implicit val stringIsAddable: Addable[String] =
    new Addable[String] {
      def plus(x: String, y: String): String = x + y

And here’s our shiny new generic summer function!

def sumGeneric[A](l: List[A])(implicit A: Addable[A]): A =

And now this works for Int, Double, String, and many more.

A good exercise at this point is to define an Addable instance for List[A].

Making an Exception

What happens when we pass in an empty List to our summer function though? We get an exception! How do we prevent this? A common answer I get is “Oh I know it won’t happen” – this is not ideal, we want to guarantee safety as much as possible without having to rely on human judgement.

How then do we write a safer summer function? Lets turn to an alternative way of implementing sum on List[Int].

// Old, bad version
def sum(l: List[Int]): Int = l.reduce(_ + _)

// Shiny, new version
def sum(l: List[Int]): Int = l.foldLeft(0)(_ + _)

What happens now when we pass an empty List into the sum function? We get 0, not an exception! Note that before all we gave the program was a binary operation (what Addable defines), where now we give a binary option and a “zero” or starting value (the 0). As it stands, we cannot write this with Addable since it has no “zero”.

It may be tempting to just add a zero method to Addable, but then we may run into the same issues we had with Numeric later on – we don’t always need a “zero”, sometimes a binary operation is good enough. So instead, let’s create an AddableWithZero type class.

trait AddableWithZero[A] extends Addable[A] {
  def zero: A

Note that while you dont see the plus method in here, the fact it extends Addable without implementing the plus method propagates the need to implement that method, so programmers who want to create an AddableWithZero[A] instance need to implement both.

Programmers can now write functions that depend only on Addable, or perhaps if they need a bit more power use AddableWithZero. Types that have AddableWithZero instances also have Addable instances automatically due to subtyping.

Lets move our Addable instances to the AddableWithZero object.

object AddableWithZero {
  implicit def numericIsAddableZero[A](implicit A: Numeric[A]): AddableWithZero[A] =
    new AddableWithZero[A] {
      def plus(x: A, y: A): A =, y)
      def zero: A =

  implicit val stringIsAddableZero: AddableWithZero[String] =
    new AddableWithZero[String] {
      def plus(x: String, y: String): String = x + y
      def zero: String = ""

And finally, our shiny new generic sum function!

def sumGeneric[A](l: List[A])(implicit A: AddableWithZero[A]): A =


Plot Twist

It turns out that our Addable and AddableWithZero type classes is not just us being sly and clever, but an actual thing! They are called Semigroup and Monoid (respectively), taken from the wonderful field of abstract algebra. Abstract algebra is a field dedicated to studying algebraic structures as opposed to just numbers as we may be used to. The field looks into what properties and operations various structures have in common, such as integers and matrices. For instance, we can add two integers, as well as two matrices of the same size. This is analogous to how we noticed the plus worked on not only Numeric but String and List[A] as well! This is the kind of generecity we’re looking for.

Here’s what sumGeneric looks like in Scalaz land.

import scalaz.Monoid

def sumGeneric[A](l: List[A])(implicit A: Monoid[A]): A =
  l.foldLeft(, y) => A.append(x, y))

Thankfully we dont have to create our own versions of Semigroup and Monoid – Scalaz has one for us! In fact, the developers of Scalaz have been kind enough to define several Monoid instances for common types such as Numeric, String, List[A], etc. There are also instances for tuples – if we have a tuple, say of type (A, B, C), and all three types have Monoid instances themselves, then the whole tuple has an instance where the zero is the tuple (,, and the plus is appending corresponding pairs between the two tuples. Look for instances that may already be defined before defining your own on existing types.

If you are interested in learning more about numeric programming, check out the spire library, as well as the accompanying post about generic numeric programming.

Law-Abiding Citizen

To close this post off, I confess one thing: defining a Monoid (and Semigroup) instance should not be done without some thought. It is not enough that you simply have a zero and a binary operation – to truly have a Monoid or Semigroup certain laws must be obeyed. These laws are as follows:

Call the plus operation $+$ and the zero value $0$. Arbitrary values of type A will be referred to as $a$, $b$, etc.

The Semigroup law requires $+$ to be associative. That is:

$(a + b) + c = a + (b + c)$

In addition to the Semigroup law for the binary operation, the Monoid law relates $+$ and $0$:

$(a + 0) = (0 + a) = a$

To check these laws, Scalaz provides ScalaCheck bindings to help you, but that is a topic for another day.

Note that a particular type can have several Semigroup or Monoids that make sense. For instance, Int has a Monoid on $(+, 0)$ as well as on $(*, 1)$. Convince yourself (using the above laws) that this makes sense.

This raises the question of how we get both $+$ and $*$ Monoids for Int without making scalac freak out about ambiguous implicit values. The answer is “tagged types”, again a topic for another day.

Getting Help

If you have any questions/comments/concerns, feel free to hop onto the IRC channel on Freenode at #scalaz.